Forty years ago, President Reagan was shot, and therein hangs a dog’s “tale”

By Ingrid Newkirk

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Forty years ago, on March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton. So was James Brady, who later died as a result of his wounds, and two others: Secret Service officer Tim McCarthy and D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty. With Officer Delahanty was a dog named Kirk.

Security was lax in those days. Just minutes before the shooting, my dog, Ms. Bea, and I had been directly across the street from that now infamous archway, visiting the Cafritz building, but my connection to the event was even closer than that. Not only was Kirk named after me, I was also responsible for his presence at the site.

Kirk was a handsome German shepherd. I knew him well because I was poundmaster of what was then the D.C. “dog pound,” which is where Kirk — called “King” then but not treated like one — had ended up. His owners had pushed him through the door and signed a form and were gone. In those days, we took in a lot of German shepherds. Working with the head of the Metropolitan Police Department’s K-9 unit, I instituted a program to save the lives of some of those who had been thrown away as if they were inanimate objects or who were unclaimed strays. The dogs were put through their paces, tested for temperament, and, if they passed the tests, went on to have a new, working life with the police.

There were three reasons I cherished that program: First, it gave those otherwise unadoptable dogs a second chance at life, as many had been so mistreated by their owners that they were deemed too aggressive to go into private homes. Second, Metropolitan Police dogs weren’t kept warehoused like mere equipment, kept in a cage somewhere, as some police dogs are; they all lived at home with their officer families and were considered fellow officers who did much the same work as their human partners. Third, the Washington Humane Society/SPCA was a place often frequented by K-9 officers, who provided a presence that protected the staff from human beings who could be far more aggressive than any dogs sheltered there, and in getting to know them, we learned that they loved their dogs too much to risk their lives. To a man (and they were all men back then), they would rather wait it out than send a dog into a situation too dangerous for them to go into themselves.

After the shooting, Office Delahanty retired on disability, and Kirk retired with him. There was a retirement party at the family home, and other officers took their dogs to it. It was supposed to be a somewhat melancholy occasion, but I remember everyone watching and laughing as the dogs jumped into the swimming pool in the backyard over and over again, chasing each other and having a whale of a time.

These days, the “pound” is an animal shelter, and the dog of the day — discarded, battered, bruised and sorely used — is no longer the German shepherd, but the pit bull, the most abused dog in the land. There are other lonely dogs there, too, as there are in all the shelters in the U.S., indeed around the world. Many were casually purchased from pet stores or breeders then equally casually discarded, which is why PETA has a campaign called “Adopt, don’t shop.”

It may be an unusual way to commemorate what took place 40 years ago, but there has never been a better time to do so by taking in a homeless dog—giving love and understanding, patience and a family, to someone who needs you. Breeders and pet stores contribute to the crisis of animal overpopulation and casual abandonment, but fostering or adopting a dog in memory of Kirk and Officer Delahanty would be a lovely way to chip away at it.